PMP 2024: Change One Play

PMP 2024: Change One Play

If you don't know what PMP means, this is part of the yearly fundraiser for the scholarship named after my dad. I asked for donations to the scholarship fund and, in return, I let the donors Pick My Post. And then I publish their requested article (unlocked and free for all to read, of course).

Here's the next question on the list:

If you could change just one play in your Illini sports fandom, what would it be?

~Randy D.

Man, I had to think long and hard about this one. Maybe I should just walk you through my thinking.

Obviously, the first thought is "could I change one play and get us a basketball national title?" In other words, Luther Head's three pointer in the title game in 2005 or Sean Higgins put-back over Nick Anderson in the 1989 Final Four. But my immediate thought there: Head's three (with 16 seconds left) would have only tied the game at 73. We don't know what North Carolina would have done with those final 16 seconds. And if I say "Higgins put-back rims out and we get the rebound", then that game is going to overtime and we don't know what happens in overtime.

So that sends me thinking of other options. My football brain moves to 1990 and our #5 ranking in early November. We had already beaten eventual national champion Colorado. So if we beat #11 Iowa (and then Michigan), we'd 100% be in the national title picture during bowl season. Could my answer here be "Iowa sophomore defensive tackle Bret Bielema trips over some equipment in the visitors locker room before the game, landing on Nick Bell's foot and breaking his big toe." If Bell is unable to play, that wipes away his 168 rushing yards, Illinois wins, and maybe we go on to win the national title. (But we still lost to Michigan the next week so it probably doesn't matter.)

Maybe my brain is too fixated on "can I get us a national title?" and I should be thinking about "change one play and get us a Big Ten title." Lots of individual moments come to mind when thinking about that. The basketball game at Wisconsin in March of 2003 where we lost 60-59 and Wisconsin won the Big Ten title - change one play in that game to give us the win and we'd have been able to claim five consecutive Big Ten titles (five!). Instead, we won in 2001 and 2002 and then again in 2004 and 2005. The Devin Harris Game is a strong candidate for this (maybe I'd just make my choice "the official doesn't call the foul on the final play and send Harris to the free throw line with a chance to win the Big Ten title").

When thinking about a football Big Ten title – and this was the first moment where I thought "you know, I think this might be my choice" – my brain went back to 1990 and the Michigan game mentioned above (one game after the loss to Iowa). For those who don't know, we finished in a four-way tie for the 1990 Big Ten title with Michigan, Iowa, and Michigan State. Iowa held the tiebreaker and got to go to the Rose Bowl. BUT, had we beaten Michigan the week after losing to Iowa, we would have finished 7-1 and there wouldn't have been a need for a tiebreaker because we would have won the Big Ten outright.

Is there a play in that Michigan game that would have changed the outcome? Absolutely. Let me go see if I can find video of it and I'll make a gif or something.

Found it. We're trailing 22-17 in the 4th quarter. We're driving for the winning TD. We reach the Michigan 35. We try a flea flicker and...


Michigan then runs out the clock and we lose 22-17. If my choice here is "the flea flicker works against Michigan and we win 24-22", then we win the Big Ten and we'd have three Rose Bowls to talk about in my lifetime: 1983, 1990, and 2007. Strong contender here.

But then my brain immediately settles on my choice. And I kind of hate it at first. The logical side of my head says "play it safe here - pick the Luther Head three or the Sean Higgins rebound." But I know my answer. It's always been my answer. The one play I would change if I could go back and change any play in my Illini sports fandom (since I know I can't change a single play and guarantee myself a title) is this:

Ken Norman's shot falls against Austin Peay.

And that's not just "take away the single worst sports memory of my childhood." Let's look at the Southeast Region in 1987:

Georgetown was suspect as the 1-seed that year (as Providence proved by beating them). It was a region full of flawed teams (Alabama, Clemson, Kansas). Austin Peay was sneaky good (they took eventual Final Four participant Providence to overtime in the next game), and had we gotten past them, I am still one THOUSAND percent convinced that we would have gone to the Final Four. The Florida run in 2000 where they needed a runner in the lane from Mike Miller to beat Butler in the first round before winning their next four games? That would have been us in 1987. No one can convince me otherwise.

And in this "change a single play" exercise, all I need to do is ask for this shot to drop:


If Ken Norman makes that shot...

1. We are saved the embarrassment of our worst tournament loss of all time.
2. We would have likely made a deep tournament run (I can't prove this but I KNOW it).
3. Ken Norman would be in the pantheon of all-time great Illini where he belongs.

So much of my childhood hinges on that moment. I've told the story before, but I was so nervous watching the game in my basement (I was in 8th grade) that I pulled out my old hand-held Coleco football game – think GameBoy, but with individual dashes for the "players" – and just played the game while listening to the TV. I couldn't watch.

And yes, I cried when we lost. Every single person reporting on college basketball loved the "Dick Vitale promised to stand on his head if Austin Peay beat Illinois" thing so much that it was non-stop. I swear most of my "once Illinois is out of the Tournament, I won't watch a single game" thing comes from the scar tissue of "did you hear that Dick Vitale has to stand on his head now?" being everywhere in 1987. And that was before the internet.

Yeah, that's my answer. It maybe only advances us to the second round where we'd lose to Providence and they'd still go on to the Final Four. In "moments that would get us another Final Four", all I have to do is change the Dickie Beal travel in the 1984 Kentucky Elite Eight game to get us another certain Final Four appearance. But I have to answer this honestly and the single play I want gone from my life is...

Ken Norman missing the shot to beat Austin Peay.